Article on IESB.net by Christina Radish
On Season 2 of the hit HBO television series True Blood, the mysterious and somewhat sinister Maryann Forrester is stirring things up in a major way, while her true identity and her real reason for showing up in Bon Temps remain to be seen.
As the wealthy local with unknown intentions, actress Michelle Forbes is having a lot of fun working on the acclaimed show. Best known for her work on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Homicide: Life on the Street, 24, Battlestar Galactica, In Treatment and Prison Break, the former ballerina promises that Maryann’s motives will be revealed, as the season progresses.
In this exclusive interview, Michelle Forbes talked about working with the talented cast of True Blood, and the devotion and dedication of sci-fi genre fans.
IESB: When and how did you know that you wanted to be an actor?
Michelle: As the story goes, I started off as a ballet dancer. I knew, pretty early on, that I needed another form of expression, and it just seemed that acting, and this idea of playing pretend and telling stories, was really fascinating to me. It was a natural progression, out of the dance world and into the world of theater and cinema.
IESB: How did you originally become a part of True Blood? Was it just through a regular audition?
Michelle: I came in towards the end of the first season, and it was a meeting like any other, to be honest. The show hadn’t aired yet, so I wasn’t aware of it. I hadn’t read the books. It was just that new vampire show on HBO with Alan Ball. That’s what I knew. There’s no great story about that initial meeting, I have to say.
IESB: Have you read any of the books since then?
Michelle: After everything was signed and sealed, I do remember running out and buying all of the books. I read the first one, pretty darn quickly, and then I decided to stop reading them because I wanted to tell the story that we were telling and that Alan was telling. And, I’m glad that I did because, although he uses a basic geography of the book, the story is actually his own, as well as Charlaine Harris’. An adaptation is an adaptation, it can’t just be a translation because you have different time constraints, etc.
IESB: For those who might not be familiar with the show yet, who is Maryann and how does she fit into the story?
Michelle: What I’ve been saying about Maryann is that she’s very mysterious and she likes her mischief. She has got quite an agenda, in this town, and she is going to have one hell of a time when it comes to light. She’s a wacky one. It’s been total fun to play.
IESB: What can viewers expect from Season 2, for your character?
Michelle: It’s so difficult to talk about this show without giving anything away. But, what I can say is that Maryann likes to have a lot of parties. She likes for there to be a lot of food around. She has a very strange entourage with her, at all times. She lures Tara into her world, but she’s just fascinated by everyone in Bon Temps and she wants to leave her footprints all over that town.
IESB: Will audiences learn more about what her agenda is?
Michelle: Oh, sure, but the story runs over the entire season. There are different storylines going on at once. Out of that main storyline, in the middle of the town last year, it spun off into these different stories. Bill and Sookie are in Dallas, there’s the Fellowship of the Sun storyline and there’s the Maryann storyline in Bon Temps, and these stories spin autonomously. As the season progresses, you understand all of these stories a bit more.
IESB: Who does Maryann interact with the most, throughout the season?
Michelle: Tara, Sam, Arlene, the whole crown at Merlotte’s and Detective Bellefleur, played by the extremely talented and hilarious Chris Bauer. Bill and Sookie are off in Dallas with Eric, so it’s the Merlotte’s crowd.
IESB: Since you came to this world later on, were you nervous at all about working into a show with a cast that had already established relationships with each other?
Michelle: No, that’s kind of what we do, as actors. I always consider myself as somebody who’s constantly changing schools. I’m just always starting over in school. No, it’s great, actually. I prefer coming into shows in the second season because you have a true understanding of what the show is, everyone is at home, they’ve dug their heels in, and you get to come in and just fly on that energy that’s already been established. This show hadn’t aired yet, when I signed on, but we all suspected that it was going to do extremely well.
IESB: How much were you told about this character from the beginning, and how much has been developing as you go along?
Michelle: I was told a lot, yet interestingly very little. That sounds like a riddle, but playing Maryann has been a bit of a riddle. There were more conceptual discussions, initially. I didn’t quite understand how it was fitting into the stories that I was getting every week. Now that time has gone on, I see how fascinating it is, and how this character has also evolved in the writers’ room, in the costume fittings, on set with all of us and in the editing room. It really is such a collaborative show, and Maryann was definitely a group effort.
IESB: What was it about Maryann that you found so appealing? How can you relate to her?
Michelle: I don’t know that I can relate to Maryann, but I’m sure other people will. What I found so fascinating about her is that she’s completely liberated from everything. She has no sorrow, no guilt and no remorse. She doesn’t live with the same rules that we live with. Oddly, that was intimidating, at first. We always say that we want to be happy, free and content, and live with no rules, but when we’re given that, it’s terrifying because we tend to operate better with structure and guidelines. So, initially she was a bit frightening, but I didn’t realize what a gift she was until about half-way through the season. I had just finished doing this series in Canada, called Durham County, that was all about sorrow, remorse, guilt, regret, dead children and all sorts of light, fun things. You think you’re fine, but you don’t realize that you’re not fine until you’re back in the world, and I think if I had to go into another tortured role, I probably would have killed myself. So, playing Maryann, and experiencing her sense of fun, mischief and play, has been a lot of well-needed fun.
IESB: Since Maryann’s motives are so mysterious, how do you think audiences will react to her?
Michelle: I’m not sure. It will be interesting to find out. We all hope that the mystery keeps people intrigued and not frustrated. But, there’s so much going on, with all these different storylines and all these fantastic things that we get to play, that I think it will fit in nicely. This season really just clips along at a wonderful pace.
IESB: What’s it been like to work with Alan Ball and this cast?
Michelle: It’s a very tight bunch, who are a very dedicated, passionate, committed group of people. You can’t ask for anything better than that. It’s almost like there’s a thread of gratitude on that set that you don’t always see. I’ve had the great luxury of working with so many wonderful companies, but there’s a real energy and enthusiasm on this show. And, of course, Alan is the best. He’s having a ball on this show, and it totally shows. He wanted to have fun, after Six Feet Under, and that’s really evident.
The writers are having a blast and we’re having a blast, and that kind of joy can’t help but really pad the fun and the beauty of what we’re doing. Everybody’s just so game. People aren’t sitting around complaining and saying they don’t want to do something. Everybody’s just ready to go. Everybody wants their next challenge. From every department to every actor to every writer, everybody is pushing each other to go further and further, and that is such a great environment to work in, as opposed to being on one of the major networks, where everybody is living in fear of what the studio, the network and the audience is going to say. Alan just gets to tell the story, the way he wants to tell it and, if you want to come and sit down at our dinner table, great, and if you don’t, that’s cool too.
IESB: Were you at all surprised by the huge acclaim the show has received and the devoted fan following that it’s gotten?
Michelle: Not really. I’m not surprised by it. Wow, that genre audience is massive, isn’t it? It’s dedicated and committed, so I’m not surprised. It’s always fascinating to me, how these things happen, all at the same time. Vampires are so big right now, not that the show is just about vampires. It’s not even slightly just about vampires. But, Twilight is so in the forefront of everyone’s conscience right now. We’re just in the Vampire Age. We’ll all look back and say, “Oh, I remember the Vampire Age of 2009.” All of us, inevitably, get asked the question, “Are you a vampire fan?,” and so few of us were. I certainly wasn’t. But, what I love about this show is that they break all those vampire stereotypes. If you die at different times, you’re not going to have one cookie-cutter idea of a vampire, so in that sense, he’s made these non-humans more human by bringing them into our modern culture and placing them smack-dab in the middle of this small Southern town.
IESB: Now that you’ve been doing the show for awhile, do you feel like you have more of an understanding for why people are so intrigued by this genre?
Michelle: My theory is that we’re in a big national depression, with the economy and people being out of work. We have the hope of a new administration, but we don’t know what’s going to happen yet and we’re exhausted from worrying, and I think that it’s just a good bit of fun. It’s escapist, and it’s fun for smart people. Alan still asks questions about family and love, the pack mentality thinking, and how susceptible we are to judgement and having our minds changed about things we don’t understand. And, he’s able to explore these themes, but it never gets too heavy. There’s always a pratfall right behind it, or a really gross sex scene, or something that will shift the tone. There’s something to appeal to everyone, with this show. A lot of men watch this show, and they wouldn’t normally.
Alan and Charlaine have really just hit on something that is appropriate for this moment, right here and now, that is exciting and fun for everyone. People are tuning into these reality shows that I find completely mindless, but this show is escape that isn’t mindless. That’s why people are responding to it. And, we’re just having so much fun, how could you not want to come to the party? So many of the vampire excursions are so brooding and depressing, and everyone is just so tortured, all the time, and Alan brings so much humor to this, but it’s adult humor. This is a real and funny, adult look at modern vampires. What’s great about the show is that it’s also in the deep South, which adds another texture to it. It’s rooted in that part of America, where it’s very racially divided, so race is a big issue. And, it’s not just about vampires. It’s about shape-shifters, telepathic waitresses, maenads and the town drunk. It just has all of these wonderful elements, and this season is crazy. It gets insane this season. There were times, at the table reads, where I couldn’t believe what we were about to shoot. It’s quite interesting and it opens up quite a bit.
IESB: What’s been the most enjoyable thing about working on this show, and what’s been the most challenging thing about it?
Michelle: The most enjoyable thing, for me, is just never knowing what’s ahead. It’s a little like Christmas, opening up those scripts. There’s a certain amount of trepidation because you don’t know what’s going to be asked of you. And, what’s been most challenging is playing someone who’s absolutely free of any of the things that we’re usually restrained by. That was probably the most challenging. I felt like I didn’t know where to move, at first. Then, you’re just given all this really rich, wonderful material, and this fun stuff to do, and that became the fun part of it. What was challenging initially became the fun of it.
IESB: Since you’ve also been involved with other shows that have had devoted followings, like Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: The Next Generation, have you gotten used to that kind of fan reaction, or is it still surprising, every time it happens?
Michelle: It’s still pretty surprising. I am always surprised. I shouldn’t be, at this stage of the game, but I am. All of these shows that have this kind of cult following, it’s because it is tapping into something in the unconscious that is delighting people, be it for good or bad. For the last 10 years, we’ve had this obsession with horror films where they are the genre film of the moment. Why is that? They had disappeared from the landscape, for awhile there. They were here and there, every once in awhile, but not in the way that it has been, this past 10 years. Now, it’s just come back, full force. It’s always interesting to me that you can chart what people are looking for through the stories that we’re telling.
What Alan has done, without being heavy-handed in the slightest, is use a genre piece and use it as this beautiful political allegory, like what Battlestar Galactica did as well. Something very deep and beautiful was born on that show, and it was allowed to be born because it grew under the banner of a genre show. That’s true with True Blood as well. It seems fun and sexy on the top, but we’re actually looking at some series stuff too, like human relationships, and our sense of injustice and judgement of others, and people and things we don’t understand. The inner conflict happens for each of these different characters in different ways because they’re different beings. And, it makes us question ideas of compassion and judgement, of ourselves and others, how we restrict ourselves and our own thinking, and how we are terrified of our own thinking, so we’ll latch onto group thinking. It explores all these different things, but in the meantime, you get to watch a lot of pretty people, running around in hardly any clothes.
IESB: Can you talk about juggling True Blood, Durham County and In Treatment? How do those schedules all work out?
Michelle: I love to work. There’s an adventure that comes with every job, and you can never have too much adventure in your life. I have been busy this last year. I did the last couple of episodes on the first season of True Blood, and then I was on a plane to Montreal to do the Canadian series Durham County, which was very beautiful and I’m so pleased that I got to be a part of it. There was a possibility that I wasn’t going to be able to do it because of HBO. I was in Montreal for three months, and then I was in New York for a fitting for In Treatment, two days after I finished Durham County, and was just running on adrenalin from that job. I did a couple episodes of In Treatment, was in bed sick for the holidays, and then started on True Blood in January.
It’s wonderful. I’ll never complain about having too much work, but all three characters were so different and I’ve been living my own little repertory theater for over a year, jumping in and out of these different characters. It’s been a joy because they’ve all been such wonderful writers. Laurie Finstad-Knizknik, who wrote Durham County, is just such a brilliant woman. To jump from her pad and pencil over to Alan’s pad and pencil has just been a real joy.
IESB: Did it help that the characters were all so different?
Michelle: It really helped that they’re so different because they all helped me to shed the last one. This woman that I played on Durham County, Pen Verrity, held a lot of sadness and sorrow, and I didn’t realize how much I was carrying around with me. Maryann helped me to shed Pen, the more I became immersed in her. I think Pen would have stayed with me a lot longer, had I not been able to jump into Maryann right after.
IESB: Are there types of roles or specific genres that you’re still looking to do, that you haven’t gotten the chance to do yet?
Michelle: I want to do a period piece because I’ve never done one. I’ve always said that I just wanted to do one of everything. I got the Western out of the way. But, I have wanted to do one of every genre. I did the American cop drama, I did the British cop drama, and now, I’ve done the Canadian cop drama. I just always want new and different. I never know what I want, but I usually know what I don’t want, and what I don’t want is what I’ve already done before. I’m always just waiting to see what else is out there, to see what new adventure is going to be had.
Photo Credit HBO / Jaimie Trueblood